Fictional Magic, Real Practice pt 3

My original interlocutor made a comment on my last piece, so we have some more to go on this week! Pontifus’s original question (which, shamefully, I have not even approached answering), was about the connection between magic as practice and magic as plot device. Specifically, magic as practice is the use of metaphor et al to reconstruct oneself, the world, and everything else. Magic as plot device is a way to produce a metaphor for something else. Therefore, highly systematized fictional magics are pointless if not actively stupid, since they systematize what’s meant to be interpreted.

That’s certainly a problem. It’s difficult, to say the least, to puzzle out the meaning of the magic itself in something like Mistborn or Wheel of Time, since they’re (to certain degrees or others) completely systematized to the point that they’re simply, well, game mechanics in a fiction instead of a game – and, let’s be honest, that’s exactly what’s happening here. Sanderson has been blissfully open about his love of gaming and its influence on him. However, we can still see that there’s a problem here – we are, while reading Mistborn, attempting to make sense of the book, divine its meaning, if you will. The system adds little, and possibly distracts us, from that effort. (By the way, I wrote about Mistborn once already).

Counter-examples may help us at this point. Consider the magic of Avatar: the Last Airbender and – to provide something similar to the books mentioned above – The Lies of Locke Lamora. In Avatar the magic is kind-of sort-of chi; that is, it’s a byproduct of one’s martial arts practice and discipline of mind and body. Each practitioner has a wheehouse in which they’re most comfortable: each of the elements. This is basically genetic, though every generation there’s an Avatar who can wield all the forms. You know this, this is the basic plot summary. However, there are characters like Iroh, who make use of techniques from other elements even though he can channel nothing but fire – there’s an episode where it’s revealed he can do the unthinkable: redirect the force of lightning, the most powerful fire element attack. He learned to do so by studying waterbenders at work, because they are always channeling around them. They never produce water the way Iroh can produce fire.

Now, the symbolism here is stark and powerful. Fire is a pure energy, a force of Will (it’s even coded this way in the traditional tarot system), and emerges from the person as well as from places like campfires or volcanoes. Water lies around in pools, it accumulates, like the emotion it is associated with (that’s emotion in general, not a specific emotion). It is powerful as a force in a rush, but can be used to nourish as well – which is more difficult, but not impossible, for fire. Fire tends to be destructive unless controlled – directed. The Avatar is a symbol for the wholeness of the human being. All four elements in the classical system go into making the world and the people in it. To focus on just one element to the detriment of the others is to handicap oneself.

Magic in The Lies of Locke Lamora is buried in the background (at least in the first two novels, I haven’t gotten a chance to read the third one yet). Mysterious artifacts lie scattered around the city, used as buildings, building materials, statues, weapons, what have you. But no one knows where the stuff came from, how it was made, or who put it there. It’s just a fact of life. Magic here is more metaphysical, being “behind” the regular scenes of daily life. But since it’s a fantasy it can also lie around in plain sight, though unrecognized. Generally metaphysical magic is like that; it posits, as did the Golden Dawn in the 19th century, that there’s magic everywhere, and those who are not initiated (which can be a self-initiation) just don’t notice it or know how to take advantage of it. They want the wrong things, so they look for the wrong things.

It’s like that exercise where you walk around for a week looking for quarters, but only keeping those whose heads are up. Track how many of each you find. Switch the next week, keep only tails-up quarters. Generally one finds more of what one can keep, because you’re looking for that one. You’ll “miss” (ignore) the other because it doesn’t matter to you. In the same way, magic itself lies around in plain sight but ignored. The novel literalizes this, perhaps equating magic with spirituality itself or just with facts ignored in the world (the characters certainly spend most of their time trying very hard to ignore things staring them in the face).

So there are two examples of magic in fiction being used in what we can term a “spiritual practice” sort of way. That is the sort of aspiration we could safely ask all writers to aim at – the magic meaning as much as the characters or the setting. This gets into the basic way in which a symbol works – it is like a word (since a word is just a symbol anyway, this makes sense). It points to something else, and when we read, the way in which it points and any oddities in the relationship build up extra layers of meaning. So the magical stuff in Locke Lamora, for instance, points to magic itself, to its presence in the physical, mundane world. The fact that it’s just lying around, a curiosity but unimportant, shows us the way in which the people of this setting are most likely to treat important spiritual or metaphysical ideas – they won’t treat them at all, they don’t think of them. (Now, I have no doubt they’ll be important later, but that supports my thesis here, since they’ll “come due” to the people as well as the plot.)

The magic that doesn’t meet this criteria is, I suppose I have to admit, different from magic practice. One of Pontifus’s problems was that magic in some fantasies is as predictable as science in a lab – X input always leads to Y output. Now, that can be done well, if the symbolic structure is sound, but usually it’s just a kind of science fantasy, where the thought processes of science fiction are imported to the world of fantasy. Now, I have no problem with that in principle – one of my favorite fantasy novels is still The Wiz Biz, by Rick Cook, in which a California programmer creates a magical programming language that allows people to do magic without decades of training or elaborate rituals that can be interrupted – the elaborate work all goes in in advance, in the coding. In fact, that sort of qualifies as good stuff, since it’s an act of will to impose order on a chaotic process. The odd thing there is that the order suddenly exists outside the magician – in the second novel in the collection, other people can use the magic the main character uses, which seems to me a bit like all computers being able to run Python code without a compiler installed.

I’m finding I have difficulty coming to an adequate conclusion. It doesn’t seem useful to just shake my fist at certain kinds of fictional magic, and yet that’s nearly what we’ve been led to here. One of the basic promises that the symbols of typical fiction magic makes is that there is an order to the universe. We aren’t in an atheistic place of random happenstance – there is an order and it makes meaning and sense of things… the curious part being that those things are actually left out of the narrative, because “magic itself’ is perceived to carry a payload of meaning on its own.

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